Maine Farm to School Network
WHY IT STARTED
The Maine Farm to School Network is fashioned after the national Farm to School movement that began six years ago through a $3 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation which distributed resources to eight regional organizers around the country. In New England, efforts centered around two regional lead agencies: from Shelbourne Farms in Vermont and Coastal Enterprises, Inc. in Maine.
Early efforts to build a Farm to School network in Maine date back to 2006. Meeting through a series of statewide conferences about farm to school programs sponsored by the Kellogg grant, many eager participants desired to build a network that would create linkages across the state; working with the Eat Local Foods Coalition, a listserv was set up and several meetings were held to discuss the initiative. But a network did not come together at that time; instead, a Farm to School “Workgroup” was formed of many of the same partners, such as the Healthy ME Partnerships, Maine Organic Farmers Association, the Maine Nutrition Network, Maine’s Department of Education, Maine’s Center for Disease Control, the Department of Agriculture, and the Cooperative Extension. This Workgroup wanted to grow the farm to school movement through focusing on policy work and developing a framework to expand Farm-to-School initiatives throughout the state. Three years ago, the legislature formally charged the Workgroup with developing a study that identified best practices and made policy recommendations; this study was submitted in 2010. By 2011, the Workgroup was ready to ask the legislature for resources to establish a “produce fund” that would reimburse schools $1 for every $3 spent on local procurement. Although this request was not funded, the Workgroup continued its forward momentum by moving ahead to establish local connections through a network approach. In March 2011, in collaboration with the Healthy Maine Partnership system, the Workgroup issued a Request for Proposals seeking proposals for district representatives that would make up a network.
WHO IS INVOLVED
A variety of resources came together to launch the Maine Farm to School Network in the summer of 2011. Partners include the Maine Network of Healthy Communities, the Healthy Maine Partnership Think Tank, the US Department of Agriculture, the Bingham Program, and the Maine Community Foundation. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been very supportive of the regional New England efforts to reshape the economics of institutional procurement, contributing $250,000 across New England, including $11,000 for state-wide organizing and capacity building by the Maine Farm to School Network.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
The Network seeks to knit together diverse partners in school districts and communities across Maine through eight district representatives who work with Healthy Maine Partnerships spread across the Public Health Districts across the state. As the state-wide Coordinator, Ken Morse works with the district representatives and three state-level stakeholders to make up a Network Steering Committee that facilitates communication and strengthens the coordination of efforts around the state.
The Network focuses on three initiatives: building school gardens; teaching children about healthy foods and local farms; and improving school meals by supporting the purchase of local foods. Enhancing the school procurement of local foods has been especially important in changing the eating habits of youth. Many, if not most, school kitchens have evolved well away from local purchasing and scratch cooking. The Farm to School Network helps school kitchens make the transformation back to local buying and scratch cooking by helping schools find farmers close by, encouraging small famers to work together to aggregate supplies, and providing support so that farmers can “learn how to speak food service”, e.g., converting bushels to serving sizes. An example of how the Network facilitates this connection is the organization of “culinary boot camps”, where real chefs offer field trips to local farms and teach school lunch personnel how to buy local and cook from scratch. Another system change the Network has encouraged is helping food services staff find budgetary efficiencies like taking advantage of local produce in the summer season by processing and freezing items for use during the winter, such as tomato sauce, pesto, or berries.
District Network representatives receive a stipend of $2,000 to conduct a scan of every school in their districts about school gardens, healthy foods curricula, and local procurement. The purpose is to develop a robust contact database that can help inform future initiatives for the Maine Farm to School movement. A good example of the integrated approach that the Network supports is the Maine Harvest Lunch event that has been featured in many schools around the state. Schools provide a special meal for students featuring food from local growers, with the growers themselves working with teachers to educate young people about growing and eating local healthy foods.
At this early stage of the Network’s development, finding the resources to develop and expand the Farm to School movement across the state is the primary challenge. The current district representatives work part time, although there is enough work to keep them busy much more. A happy development has been the new AmeriCorps program called Food Corps; Maine was one of ten states funded for this new initiative and there are six Food Corps volunteers across the state. Network members see the need for dozens more Food Corps representatives to move the work along.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
The community health coalitions that are part of the Maine Healthy Partnership system have now been formally recognized as integral to Maine’s new public health structure. There has been a realization that our health and economic systems cannot be fixed without fixing the food system. The Healthy Maine Partnership Think Tank is now working to build relationships with funders to raise money for the Farm-to-School system. A presentation was made at the Maine Philanthropy Center funders’ meeting and conversations with funders continue.
There are currently over 200 schools in Maine with Farm to School programs. As schools become more involved, the Network expects this number to expand across the state. The Network hopes that the potential economic impact of the movement will not be lost on legislators and policy makers: shifting just 20% of expenditures by public school cafeterias to locally grown foods could generate nearly $9 million for local farmers. Schools are not the only institutions that could become part of the Farm to Institution approach. As communities and individuals begin to understand how self-reliance is critical to our survival, farm to institution could branch out to farm to hospital, farm to nursing home, even farm to summer camp. The next phase of the movement is to ensure that the institutional use of local and regionally grown products become normative and permanent, contributing to the vitality and sustainability of local communities in Maine.